Obama’s Sanctions Dominoes: What Does Cuba Mean for Iran?

Fifty-three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Barack Obama has altered a foreign policy upheld by even his staunchly democratic predecessors Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. Obama initiated a new rapprochement with Cuba; diplomacy has prevailed over sanctions.  From Obama’s executive order on immigration to his recent climate change initiative with China and now to his decision to reconcile with Cuba, the President has certainly established a pattern of executive action that leads many to conjecture regarding Obama’s next move. Could a normalization of relations with Cuba indicate an impending rapprochement with Iran? This article argues that no, the two nations are not analogous and cannot be compared in this way, due to both historical and current factors.

Some foreign policy analysts argue that U.S. actions toward Cuba indirectly implicates an impending rapprochement with Iran. In a Foreign Policy article, Aaron David Miller contends that President Obama, who still “fashions himself as a transformer” and who is determined to “set relations… on a new and historic course,” will be eager to set his eyes on the bigger prize, Iran. In doing so, the President’s philosophy, as is likely the motive behind normalization of ties with Cuba, would be to create economic and cultural pathways that would eventually press for regime change. Within Iran, examinations of social media will reveal the general mindset that if the U.S. is willing to make diplomacy with a small island nation of only a few million people, then certainly there could be room for a new chapter with Iran, a nation of 80 million people. Iranian twitter feeds trend the hashtag #CubaTodayIranTomorrow. Much of the noise is coming from young Iranians, both in Iran and overseas.  Despite the President’s pattern of executive orders on foreign policy, I am skeptical that normalizing ties with Cuba implicates an impending U.S.-Iran rapprochement. While American embargoes on Cuba are analogous to sanctions on Iran, they are hardly identical.

 Firstly, the United States is the only nation in the world that sanctions the Caribbean island, and U.S. embargoes on Cuba are constantly condemned at the United Nations General Assembly. In contrast, there is overwhelming global cooperation on Iranian sanctions as a response to that country's looming nuclear threat. The rounds of sanctions placed on Iran have the support of the U.N. Security Council, whereas American embargoes on Cuba are unilateral. Importantly, the nuclear threat and ongoing P5+1 negotiations continue to perpetuate global uncertainty regarding the final status of a nuclear Iran. With the announcement in November that negotiations with Tehran would be extended an additional seven months, the result of the nuclear negotiations remains unclear. Without a nuclear deal, global diplomatic relations with Iran are unimaginable.In the current state of relations, Obama’s backchannel diplomacy and reconciliation was much more politically feasible with Cuba than it would ever be with Iran. 

Secondly, while Cuba once had a history of supporting Leftist insurgencies around the world, it hasn’t done so or even been capable of doing so in the past few decades. In contrast, normalization of ties with Tehran is far more of a risk to global security because Iran’s government actively and openly supports terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Shia insurgencies in Iraq and Yemen. While the Castros of Cuba have had their fair share of spoken animosity towards America, the leaders of Iran actively and openly express animosity towards the United States and are regularly on record calling for the annihilation of America’s ally Israel.

Fifty-three years ago, America’s international relations were based off a realist policy of vying for power against the Soviet Union. The U.S. needed to respond to the Soviets’ expanding global influence, an influence that eventually permeated to its communist proxy Cuba located directly off America’s southern seaboard. At the time, sanctions and embargoes against Cuba were viewed as the appropriate form of response by the Eisenhower administration. In an increasingly unstable world dominated by the puzzling security dilemma of the Cold War, an immediate form of nonviolent intervention, sanctions, was key to maintaining the security interests of the United States. Cuba no longer maintains the same threat to the United States as it did under Soviet influence, which is why Obama has normalized relations with the nation-state and established a symbolic friendship and alliance. The same cannot be said for Iran, which is why the President should not be as hasty with lifting sanctions with the nation. Havana is not Tehran, and the domino effect stops here.